It is difficult to imagine a contemporary equivalent to Christopher Marlowe’s choice of a fourteenth-century Turk warlord as a subject for popular entertainment. The historical Timur had no immediate impact on English culture or history. Those English texts that had taken an interest in historical Muslims had, more often than not, described figures like Timur as barbarous and bloodthirsty, “princes of darkness,” associated with tyranny, terror and the antichrist.
In taking up the story of a long-passed Muslim conqueror, Marlowe tapped into commercial and diplomatic interests in Asian, Near-Eastern and Northern African markets as well as anxieties over the cultural exchanges accompanying such ventures. English joint stock companies in the last quarter of the sixteenth century were exploring trade in precisely those areas of North Africa and the Levant that Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays traverse. The English were eager to expand their economy but concerned, too, with maintaining their standing in what Sir Thomas More referred to as “the common corps of Christendom.” After all, trading ventures in the Islamicate world exposed the English to accusations of degeneracy and even heresy from domestic critics and competing continental powers. Set two hundred years in the past, Tamburlaine offered a historically remote site for English considerations of the benefits, risks and cultural implications of English trade in non-Christian lands. This is not to say that Marlowe was rehearsing a rhetoric of legitimation to justify increased contact with Muslims. Instead, Marlowe’s plays seem most interested in laying bare the ways in which religious rhetoric could be strategically amplified or muted to serve economic and political interests. For Marlowe, a model of shifting, politically expedient attitudes toward religious difference was available in the foreign policy of his own government. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century, English diplomats recognized that frayed relationships between the Ottomans and the French created an opening for Anglo-Ottoman trade. In his 1578 “Memorandum on the Turkey Trade,” Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster and principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, cautioned that an embassy to the Turks “is to be handled with great secrecy” and that “it shall be very well done to give out that in respect of the danger of the traffic her majesty cannot be induced that her subjects shall trade thither.” Walsingham recognized that any alliance with the Ottomans could be perceived as an act of heresy, especially in the eyes of Catholic rivals that had called for Elizabeth’s excommunication earlier in the decade. Thus, from its foundation, England’s policy on trade with the Ottoman Empire depended upon saying one thing and doing another. It had no genuine concern with religious difference, only one that was sometimes given out depending upon the party to whom it was given or made available.
Anglo-Ottoman trade developed despite the protests of continental rivals and a domestic tradition associating Turks with the devil. Reporting on his inability to check English commercial advances, the French ambassador Jacques de Germigny reported that the English “brought in a large amount of steel and bits of broken images of brass and latten copper to cast ordnance, and promise to bring in a great deal more of it secretly in future, which is a form of contraband hateful and pernicious to all Christendom.” If such promises were made, the English were careful not to make them public. None of the correspondence between Elizabeth and Murad mentions this arms trade. However, Elizabeth’s first letter to Murad was carried aboard the Prudence, a ship that Bernardino Mendoza, Spain’s ambassador to England, alleged, in a report of December 1579, to be carrying a cargo of “bellmetal and tin to the value of twenty thousand crowns.”
Where Mendoza and de Germigny’s letters detailing dangerous “infidels” and acts “hateful and pernicious to Christendom” seek to expose, Queen Elizabeth’s correspondence with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III is characterized instead by rhetorical obfuscation. Elizabeth’s exchange of letters with Murad is striking for the ways in which both writers mute or qualify religious difference while emphasizing a specious doctrinal similarity. In other correspondence, Murad makes no effort to downplay his religious identity. So, for example in a letter to the French King Henri III, defending his admission of English merchants, Murad insists “our felicitous Porte is always open, with the praise of Allah, exalted be He!” Phrases like this are absent from his correspondence with Elizabeth where he conspicuously removes references to the divine as in his identification of himself as “Murad Shah, son of Selim Shah Khan, he who is granted victory always.” The ambiguity about who is doing the granting is mirrored and complemented by Elizabeth’s careful treatment of the divine. In requesting that Murad authorize the release of Englishmen held captive in Ottoman slave galleys, she assures him that she will seek for the Sultan the blessings of “God who only is above all things, and all men, and is a most severe revenger of all idolatry, and is jealous of his honor against the false gods of the nations.” As she does elsewhere in this correspondence, Elizabeth emphasizes shared doctrine, rendering Protestants and Muslims alike in their opposition to polytheism and idolatry (a charge regularly levelled against Catholics who adorned their churches with statues and stained glass windows depicting Christ, Mary and various saints).
The same conditional activation and suspension of religious prejudice is apparent in and essential to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays. So where critics have sometimes described the spectacularly violent and brilliantly eloquent Tamburlaine as “morally ambiguous,” it may be more pertinent to consider Tamburlaine as a device constructed to explore the moral ambiguities in early modern English ideas about religious difference. In other words, Marlowe’s unstable and even contradictory representation of his title character is, in fact, no more ambiguous than his queen and country’s curious relationship with Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Tamburlaine’s religious identity simply shifts with the plays’ shifting circumstances.